President visits Canandaigua - Catholic Courier

President visits Canandaigua

CANANDAIGUA — During a town-hall style meeting at Canandaigua Academy March 14, President George W. Bush urged senior citizens and their families to take a closer look at the new prescription-drug coverage plan Medicare Part D.

Bush was invited to visit Canandaigua by Rep. Randy Kuhl (R-Hammondsport). The trip — the president’s second visit to the Rochester area in less than a year — was intended to promote the much maligned Medicare Part D, which took effect Jan. 1. After arriving at the Greater Rochester International Airport, the president’s motorcade traveled to Canandaigua, where he gave a talk at the school before visiting Ferris Hills at West Lake Senior Living Community to talk to residents about the plan.

Medicare Part D has been highly criticized in the media in recent months, in part because many senior citizens and health-care professionals have claimed the program is too complex to be useful. Many who enrolled in the program have said they were frustrated by computer glitches and incorrect or missing insurance cards, and others said they were left on hold for long periods of time when they called the Medicare Part D information hotline. Others have simply avoided the program because they were confused by the many choices they would have to make in order to enroll.

The president sought to address those issues during his visit to Canandaigua Academy, where he took the stage with a panel of five other people, four of whom were area residents. The panel consisted of Dr. Mark McClellan, administrator of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; Susan Wilber, director of The Brighter Day, a medical adult day program in Canandaigua; Diane Lawatsch, a pharmacy operations manager for Wegmans Food Markets; and Eleanor and Bob Wisnieff of Honeoye Falls, who are enrolled in Medicare Part D.

Bush said the Medicare system had needed to be reformed because it had not kept pace with the changes made in modern medicine over the last few decades. By changing the system, he noted, the federal government has made a commitment to provide the nation’s senior citizens with modern, quality health care.

“We’ve modernized Medicare, and for the first time seniors can get prescription drugs under Medicare,” Bush said.

He acknowledged that seniors must spend time researching their options under Medicare Part D, but said those options and choices are what makes the plan effective. This might be confusing at first, but when seniors can choose which specific plans they want, they are more likely to end up with plans more suited to their individual needs, he said.

Several times during his talk, Bush encouraged senior citizens to ask their adult children or community- or faith-based organizations for help in choosing a plan. He also made frequent mention of Medicare’s Web site,, and 24-hour hotline, 1-800-MEDICARE.

“When people have had time to look at their options and have someone help them … they begin to realize that maybe the system is geared toward them,” Bush said.

The first few weeks of the program’s enrollment period did bring confusion and panic to many senior citizens, Lawatsch and Wilber agreed.

“Once we got over that initial hump, though, we really have seen drastic improvement,” Lawatsch said.

McClellan said hundreds of thousands of people are enrolling in Medicare Part D each week because the program will help them save thousands of dollars.

Through this plan, most people will pay only 50 percent of the cost of their prescriptions, and the government will pay for more than 95 percent of the cost of prescription drugs for low-income seniors, Bush said. The average monthly premiums seniors will pay have gone down $10 a month from initial estimates, and the program will cost taxpayers 20 percent less than originally estimated, he added.

“It’s a good deal. Don’t take my word for it. Twenty-six million seniors so far have taken a look and said, ‘I think it’s worthwhile to sign up,'” Bush said.

The Wisnieffs, who said they had never before had prescription-drug coverage, estimated the plan will save them at least $1,500 a year.

Dolores Finewood, secretary at St. Mary Parish in Canandaigua, said she has looked at Medicare Part D before and found it confusing. After listening to the president and the panelists, however, she said she decided to give the program another look.

Medicare Part D still has local critics, however. The plan doesn’t adequately help low-income senior citizens, said Jackie Harrison, pastoral minister at Holy Trinity Parish in Webster and director of Webster’s HOPE Ministry outreach.

New York state’s EPIC prescription plan for older adults usually is better than the new Medicare Part D, she said. Low-income people can sometimes pay even more with Medicare Part D if their prescriptions are not covered or they have to spend down their income, and sometimes these people are forced to choose between buying their prescriptions and buying food or paying rent or utility bills, she noted.

John Burdick, a manager at Catholic Charities of Steuben County’s Turning Point Community Solutions, said he deals with such situations on a regular basis.

“The devil is in the details, as they say, and seniors are paying the price,” noted Bernie Tomasso, pastoral minister at Holy Family Parish in Auburn.

Several local Catholics are unhappy with some of Bush’s other actions. Harry Murray, Sister of Mercy Grace Miller and several members of Pax Christi Rochester, Rochester’s House of Mercy — which Sister Miller directs — and St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in Rochester stood outside Canandaigua Academy during the presidential visit, holding signs protesting against war in Iraq and against the poor.

“I was there to nonviolently challenge the ceremony by which someone who is responsible for crimes against peace is welcomed into the Rochester area,” said Murray, a Catholic worker and professor at Nazareth College in Pittsford.

Bush did, however, find a friend in 6-year-old Ben Togni. Ben and his father, Dave, traveled from their home in Painted Post to see the president, and Ben was able to get his autograph. Although he’s young, Ben is a history buff and can name all 43 American presidents and the years they were born and died.

Bush met with several Catholics during his visit. Before leaving the airport for Canandaigua, he gave an award to Hammondsport native Father Joseph Champlin. He also met with Jason McElwain, who is a member of St. Mark Parish in Greece. McElwain, a high-functioning autistic teen who is manager of the Greece Athena High School boys’ varsity basketball team, gained national attention by scoring 20 points during the last four minutes of his first varsity game. Before leaving Rochester, Bush also met with families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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